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Dust to Dust?

Texas has the most acres of any state enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which seeks to prevent another Dust Bowl by paying farmers to plant grass instead of crops. But the program has fallen on hard times, and its participants worry they will, too.

Lynn County Judge H.G. Franklin looks out over his land, which is enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program.

"See this sand here? That's just pure sand."

Lynn County Judge H.G. Franklin pilots his four-wheel drive Cadillac Escalade along a desolate patch of land he owns outside Tahoka. The fine particles gathered in road ruts are indeed sandy. But the land itself is, if not lush, at least covered with grasses — a contrast to the sandy rows between scraggly cotton plants on his neighbor's land, where tiny dust whirlwinds occasionally swirl.

For the last few decades, Franklin's land has been part of the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, a federal program that pays farmers like him to keep millions of acres of land planted with grasses rather than crops in order to keep the soil from blowing away. The goal: to prevent another Dust Bowl, the period of severe dust storms in the 1930s. The land enrolled is usually poor quality, so farmers may not lose too much compared with what they could have gotten if the land had been used to grow crops.

But the $1.9 billion program has fallen on leaner times. In Texas — which has far more land enrolled in the program than any other state — the amount of acreage has dropped by more than 20 percent in the past four years. Last month, to the relief of farmers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced — for the first time since 2006 — a broad new sign-up, so that Franklin and others whose 10-year contracts are expiring can now apply to re-enroll their land. But the amount of land accepted into the program will be lower than in earlier sign-ups, because the 2008 federal Farm Bill reduced the amount of acreage that will be accepted.

"I would love to be able to tell everybody, 'If you submit an eligible offer you'll be accepted,'" says Micky Woodard, the conservation chief for the Texas division of the Farm Services Agency, which oversees the program. "But that's just not true."

The 2008 Farm Bill capped the enrolled acreage at 32 million acres. (Texas currently has about 3.2 million acres enrolled, most of it in the Panhandle.) But national acreage reached 36.7 million acres in 2007 — which, doing simple math, means that about 4.7 million acres, some of which have expired in the last four years, will be unable to come back into the program. Some of the farmers with recently expired parcels have kept the grasses and baled or run cattle, according to Woodard. But others have returned their land to crops.

For Franklin and many others, this means months of anxious waiting. The application deadline for the program is Aug. 27, and farm groups are scrambling to get out the word to encourage sign-ups. Franklin has applied to get his 640-acre parcel — on which he used to grow cotton, many years ago — enrolled again. But he won't know whether he's successful until fall.

"They said that it was going to be very competitive bidding. They couldn't promise anything as to whether we would get in or not," Franklin says.

The CRP was established in 1985, but its origins trace back to the Dust Bowl, when big, black clouds inspired the Woody Guthrie song "So Long, It's Been Good to Know Yuh," in which a preacher declared that the end had come. (Guthrie rode out Black Sunday — the worst storm of all, on April 14, 1935 — in Pampa.)

Franklin, born in 1930 in O'Donnell, doesn't remember Black Sunday or the other terrible storms of that decade. But he does recall that when he was a young man in the 1950s, there would be "two or three good blows a year," when the dust grew so intense that a driver couldn't see the road in front of him — "just be like the heaviest fog you've ever seen, except maybe worse," he says.

Since the CRP started, the storms have essentially stopped. "It does not blow like it used to," Franklin says.

The forerunner to the CRP was something called the Soil Bank program, established by Congress during the 1950s to fix the problems that had led to the Dust Bowl. But after crop prices rose during the 1970s and farmers planted more acres, problems with erosion and runoff led to more farming chemicals ending up in streams. And so, in 1985, the Food Security Act established the Conservation Reserve Program.

Within the CRP, each Texas county can enroll up to 25 percent of its cropland. Some Panhandle counties are maxed out, though Lynn County — which has 11.5 percent of its cropland enrolled — has room under the cap.

Besides preventing the wind from whipping up dust, the conservation program has restored wildlife. Ken Cearley, a wildlife-restoration specialist with the Amarillo-based Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center, said the restored grass has brought deer, pronghorn antelope, quail and pheasants. Franklin says that mule deer and white-tailed deer have begun returning to his formerly deer-less county. 

In recent years, the program has also emphasized the importance of planting native grasses. Some plantings in the earlier days included "introduced grass species" like kleingrass and weeping lovegrass, according to Mickey Black, a Lubbock-based assistant state conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which helps administer the CRP. Now, he says, farmers willing to plant native grasses, perhaps with some lagoons, will get extra points in the increasingly competitive enrollment process.

This is the situation for Judge Franklin, who receives $27 an acre for his expiring CRP land (another 640-acre land parcel that is not expiring yet gets $40 an acre). His land is planted largely with lovegrass; he has agreed to reseed half of it, with costs to be shared with the CRP. But while he waits to hear the results of his application, he is exploring other options for the land — which costs him money sitting idle, as he pays property taxes on it.

He plans to talk with someone interested in running cattle on the land, he says. Alternatively, "I might have to plow it up, but I sure don't want to do it."

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